In the Shadow of the Sacred Mountain: A Brief History of the Church in Shiprock

The volcanic plug, named Shiprock, from which the nearby town gets its name.

As early as 1899, the need for a mission to the Navajos of the San Juan Valley was recognized by Fr. Anselm Weber, OFM, of St. Michael’s. But the Franciscans had been in the Navajo field only a year; it was 25 years before a missionary was appointed to the area.

Until 1924, parts of the San Juan region were visited from time to time by the fathers, first from St. Michael’s, and later from the Lukachukai mission, on the other side of the Chuska Mountains. Then, Father Marcellus Troester, OFM, was appointed missionary. His job was to establish a mission at Shiprock and another at Towaoc, Colorado, on the Ute reservation.

The volcanic plug, named Shiprock, from which the nearby town gets its name.
The volcanic plug, named Shiprock, from which the nearby town gets its name.

He made his residence just east of the reservation at Waterflow, New Mexico, where the Ursuline Sisters had a boarding school for girls. From there he began the long and tiring task of trying to evangelize the Navajo and the Ute Indians of the Four Corners area.

Old Log Mission

At that time, the Navajo people were administered by five government agencies, and Shiprock was one of Indian service headquarters. A government boarding school was located there, its enrollment in 1924 being given as 200 pupils. A small log school building served as a mission, where he celebrated Mass and gave instructions. Establishing a mission in such a large area was difficult enough for one man, but it was made even harder by the strong anti-Catholic prejudice instilled in the Indians by Protestant missionaries and some federal officials.

However, Fr. Marcellus, quite undaunted, continued to work hard for seven years to bring the Catholic Faith to this area of the reservation.

Then, in June of 1931, owing to ill health, he was transferred, and Fr. Clementin Wottle was sent to replace him. One of the first things Fr. Clem did was to obtain property to build a church in Shiprock. By 1935 he was able, with funds obtained mostly from the Marquette League, to complete that church, a chapel of native sandstone. It was dedicated in June, 1935, in honor of Christ the King.

The old mission church at Shiprock, built in 1935.
The old mission church at Shiprock, built in 1935.

Meanwhile the work of the Shiprock Mission was expanding to such a degree that Fr. Clem himself took residence at Shiprock in four frame construction-shacks as his friary. His purpose was not to build just a church of stone but also a true Christian community there, and his easygoing manner and concern for the people soon won him the name Ba-hozhoni, the good-hearted one. At the same time, he continued to visit his many other missions in Utah, Arizona, Colorado, and New Mexico encouraging people to learn the Good News. Then, in 1937, his work becoming too much for one man, Fr. Tom Blomstrom was sent to assist him.

It took a long time and a lot of hard work for the two men to break down the anti-Catholic prejudice and gain the trust of the Navajo people. They spent many hours and days travelling through the five thousand square miles of their missions in order to contact parents for permission to instruct their children now attending the federal schools in the Shiprock Agency. Owing to their work, about two hundred and twenty children finally took instruction and – what was more important – were no longer ridiculed for their interest in the Catholic Church. Their parents and other adults, too, came to visit with the friars, sometimes seeking, and at other times offering, help.

Mission School at Waterflow

In 1948, the Ursuline Sisters in Waterflow invited the children of Christ the King Mission to attend their school as day students. Financially unable to have its own school, Christ the King Mission, through the generosity of the Bureau of Catholic Indian Missions, bought a school bus and began sending Navajo children of the area to the academy in Waterflow. The first year had an enrollment of 17 pupils. The bus carried a capacity load of 59, and the mission, lacking more transportation facilities, had to turn down several additional applications.

An early 1st Communion Class at Shiprock.
An early 1st Communion Class at Shiprock.

Thanks to the Sisters’ efforts, many children were, at last, able to receive a primary and secondary education in a Catholic school. Moreover, the Sisters gave generously of their time and talents to parish activities. Even though eventually they had to close their school, the effects of their good works are still felt.

Expansions to the Original Mission

In 1949 the old priests’ dwelling was moved and converted into an interpreter’s residence. The new rectory of the mission was completed in the spring of 1950.

In 1952 a Brother was added to the mission staff to help in all aspects of the mission Work. Still,
the task of caring for the large and well-populated mission needed more help; so in 1969 a fourth man was added to the staff.

Building the new church.
Building the new church.

The Navajo way of life is rapidly changing, and Shiprock has grown considerably since Fr. Marcellus began his mission work there. In 1958 a parish hall was built to help the missionaries to “keep in touch” and provide a bridge between the mission and the people. Now it is not uncommon to people who are seeking help to approach one of them while they are in that hall for some activity.

The current parish church of Christ the King at Shiprock, New Mexico, was dedicated in the presence of a sizeable crowd of friars, parishioners, and friends on Christ the King Sunday, November 26, 1972, at 4:00 in the afternoon. Bishop Jerome Hastrich, assisted by the Franciscan provincial Fr. Roger Huser, officiated at the ceremonies.

Dedication of the current church.
Dedication of the current church.

Large Navajo Population

The area of Christ the King Mission involves about 5,000 square miles in northern New Mexico and Arizona. Some 13,000 Navajos live in the area, with about 3,000 concentrated in the Shiprock area because of government installations there and the irrigated farms lands in the area. The town is always full of people and activity. A large Public Health Service Hospital, the agency offices of the BIA, a federal boarding school, four public schools, five large housing developments, and a Fairchild Industries plant – all these present quite a challenge, and an opportunity for evangelization, to the Shiprock mission.

Notable Dates and Places

1924 – Earliest known services by: Fr. Marcellus Troester, O.F.M. This is when Shiprock was a mission of Waterflow. Fr. Troester’s assignment to Waterflow started on August 29, 1924. Mass was celebrated at Shiprock sometime in 1924 in the log cabin building which served as the public school.

Waterflow – Where services were held, until 1935 when the first church was built in Shiprock. Records show mass being celebrated in public school building starting sometime in 1924 (frequency unknown).

1935 – When the first church was built and dedicated. The church was built in 1935 and dedicated on June 12, 1935.

Fr. Marcellus Troester, O.F.M. – The first priest in charge, when Shiprock was a mission of Waterflow. Fr. Clementin Wottle, O.F.M., who built the church at Shiprock and moved there from Waterflow in 1935, was the second pastor.

Procession at the dedication Mass for the current church.
Procession at the dedication Mass for the current church.

1972 – Subsequent reconstruction dates and dedication. The new church was built in 1972 and was dedicated on November 26, 1972. Pastor at the time was Fr. Bruce Hausfeld, O.F.M.

1935, 1950, 1958, 1972 – Significant construction dates. First rectory (made of four frame construction shacks) was built in 1935. The second rectory was built in 1950. The Catholic Center was built in 1958 and finished in June of that year. The present church was dedicated in 1972.

1961 – When Shiprock became a parish. The first pastor was Fr. Davin Von Hagel, O.F.M.

Ursuline Sisters and Sisters of St. Joseph – Groups of Sisters who were stationed in the mission. The Ursuline Sisters ran the boarding school in Waterflow. Sisters of St. Joseph assisted with the day-to-day running of the mission

Active parish groups – Cursillo, Search, Secular Franciscans, Prayer groups, Arts and Crafts Group, C.C.D., First Native American Council of the Knights of Columbus.

Early mission school – Students from Shiprock attended Sacred Heart Academy in Waterflow. The first year there were 17 students (1935?). Second year: 32 students (1936?). In 1947 Shiprock started to run a bus to Sacred Heart Academy – it held 48 students and was filled to capacity. In 1955 a new bus that held 60 students replaced the old bus and it too was filled to capacity.

Early mission areas – These included Newcomb, Toadelena, Sanostee, New Mexico, and Red Rock, Cove, and Teec Nos Pas, Arizona. Early Masses celebrated in mission areas attached to Shiprock were done in family homes.


The history taken here is complied from documents in the Diocesan archives.

Featured photo: U.S. Geological Survey


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